The tragic imagination before empires declines

They say they are not empires, but they are and they are also in crisis. Leaders of major powers are unaware of what Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic feeling of life.” Consequently, they do not know how to avoid a tragedy, this time on a planetary level.


Tragedy as a metaphor in geopolitics

The word metaphor means the transfer by analogy from one situation to another, with the purpose of illuminating and better understanding the latter. It is a comparison between two things that are not otherwise connected.

In this article, I propose to transfer Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy, as he knew it, to the current geopolitical landscape. It is about transporting the key elements of a theatrical performance to the terrain of real action between countries and especially the powers.

According to the Greek philosopher, tragedy is the artistic and stylized copy (mimesis) of a particular and grim human situation. The proscenium is reduced to unity of action, time, and space. Tragedy differs from the epic narrative, which is a long tale, and from the comedy, which is a vulgar and funny entertainment.

Today, we would call Aristotle’s characterization: “structural analysis” of tragedy. It is made up of key elements, or tipping points. In a prototypical tragedy, they are as follows:

  • The basic error or original sin (from the Greek hamartia [ἁμαρτία], fatal error).
  • The investment in the happiness/misfortune equation (adventure).
  • The recognition and acceptance of truth (agnition).
  • The fatal outcome and relief (catharsis).

The exemplary and most cited case is the tragedy Oedipus the King by Sophocles, in which the turning points are the following:

  • The hero is born defective, cursed, and abandoned by his parents.
  • The hero survives, overcomes his obstacles, defeats his enemies and is rewarded with a throne and a queen wife.
  • The hero learns that his happiness is the opposite: his misery. He realizes that unknowingly he has killed his father and married his mother.
  • Realizing it, the hero is mutilated and exiled with his children to atone for the guilt. In pain and relief, the hero regains his greatness.

To summarize the argument, we can say that theatrical tragedy forces the viewer to explicitly recognize an unpleasant, painful, and hidden truth. In this confrontation, he finds a certain relief, which can serve him and those who observe him to act more prudently in their own circumstances. In medicine, the analogy would be to reopen a poorly closed wound, disinfect it, and suture it again. Tragedy is also painful cure and good propaedeutics.

Is this scheme useful for understanding, not at the individual level but collectively, a country’s destiny, and in particular the decline of an empire? It is the question that José Ortega y Gasset asked himself about two countries that were hostile to him: that of his birth (Spain) and, for a brief and distressing time, that of adoption (Argentina).[1]

Among the countries to be mentioned,[2] both Argentina and the United States had an early, rapid, and successful development. That is why the myth of progress spread in them: “the American dream” and “God is Argentine” are popular expressions that reflect an optimism, son of easy enrichment, and not only that of a few. Today both “dreams” belong to the past. I am not going to dwell here on the similarities and differences between the two, but rather I will focus the study on the North American case, because it is an empire that Argentina never was.

The imperial decline

Compared to other empires, both historical (the Roman, Austro-Hungarian, and the Ottoman, for example) and contemporary (China and Russia for example), the North American empire is truly sui generis (exceptional), that is, a singular amalgam. It is based on an assumption and a promise, both contradictory. At the time of its foundation, it proclaimed both freedom of all and human rights but in the midst of slavery, which it practiced with cruelty and greed. It also designed the balance of the states with a federal model that protected the weakest and least populated, but did not foresee that avoiding the tyranny of the majority would not protect against the possible tyranny of a minority, as would happen later. And despite having formally abolished slavery, it has failed to overcome the structural racism derived from it. In this way, the republican democracy of the North arose into the world with an original sin, or fatal mistake – the starting point of the tragedy according to Aristotle.

After a bloody civil war (with the result limited to the merely formal emancipation of the slaves), savage and anarchic capitalism, the occupation (generally violent) of a vast territory, and a great immigration, they managed to make the USA, first, a thriving and powerful country, and after two world wars, a great empire.

Unlike other empires, the North American empire was not based on the mere acquisition of foreign spaces and cultures but on a proselytizing mission and the submission of rivals and dependents through trade. The quasi-evangelical mission of freedom and democracy disguised pure and hard rule, and placed it under a series of higher rules that actually favored it behind a veil of universal law. The U.S. made the rule of law the law of the empire. For several decades, they ruled the world as a predatory democracy, an expression that portrays its double face. Over time, the very dynamics of the system created, by extension and reaction, rival powers that confronted it, but which it was able to contain successfully for a fairly long period. In the end, as is often the case with all empires, the hegemony was broken. That is what we are witnessing now.

This imperial dialectic – strength first, reversal of dominion later – is what in the Aristotelian formulation of tragedy is called adventure. Aristotle defines adventure as “a change by which action turns towards its opposite, always subject to our rule of probability or necessity”. In the geopolitical order, it is the situation in which the US finds itself vis-à-vis China and its periphery on the one hand, and Russia and its periphery on the other. And it is the situation in which these other two find themselves as well. The rest of the countries function as the choir[3]. As we saw at the beginning of this essay, the vicissitudes are the second turning point of a tragedy.

The third turning point is the most difficult. As we have observed, it is the recognition and acceptance of a very painful truth: agnition, which in ancient Greek is called ἀναγνώρισις (anagnorisis). What is it about? Of the discovery, by a character or others, of essential data about their identity hidden from him or her, that is, denied and repressed until that moment. The revelation alters the character’s behavior and forces him to get a more accurate idea of himself and his surroundings. If the character rejects the revelation and insists on his previous and fanciful identity, he becomes reactionary and vindictive. If he accepts it and assumes the painful learning of the agnition, he can move on to a higher stage of his development, although with less power (or arrogance) than in his previous phase.

In the US, half of the population seems doomed to reaction, denying the reality of the decline of the empire and wanting to return to a hegemonic past in which it hid its original sin of freedom with slavery and the fatal duality of democracy and predation.

The other half of the population struggles to face this double and dangerous crack to grow with pain and overcoming. It is a laborious development that the philosopher Hegel called with an untranslatable German word: Aufhebung. That word is similar to a well-known popular saying: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water andwhich means “You have to save what does work while throwing away what is worthless.” Coming to terms with the past is as costly as it is necessary. We do not yet know how this internal struggle of two opposing positions will end.

In the case of the United States, the empire is at a crossroads, between a preventive catharsis (which would be very healthy) or a catastrophic outcome, which it could avoid. What we can say with certainty is that for the US it is an uncertain moment, and for the following reasons, which were exposed in the presidential speech (The State of the Union) on February 7, 2023. President Biden cited some encouraging facts:

  • Inflation drops a bit
  • Covid deaths are down by 80 percent
  • Ukraine resists Russian incursion
  • The legislature has passed laws that can mitigate climate change
  • The old infrastructure has begun to be renewed
  • Action has been taken against the proliferation of firearms and to stop the murder of so many innocent people.

These are all good signs, but will they last? Against them are the following points of objection:

  • The country remains divided with a rift that seems insurmountable, especially on cultural issues
  • One of the parties refuses to increase the necessary spending and jeopardizes the solvency of the state
  • Inflation remains relatively high
  • Ukraine War may end badly for West with a new Russian offensive
  • Citizens’ security remains precarious
  • Other countries and other powers will continue to seek alternatives to U.S. domination in different fields of action: military, technological, and financial.

In short, the conjuncture of this new year is presented as a pause in the North American decline. The US must choose between the inertia or dismissiveness of temporary relief, or instead aim at the long-range with the wisdom of one who knows the structure of the tragedy. A good strategist knows how to prepare for a rational and advantageous retreat and take care of what matters for his survival.

Lessons to be learned

As I have written in previous articles, today’s major powers (the US, China, Russia) are vulnerable, more fragile than they think. They are giants with feet of clay. The ability of each one to think tragically to (paradoxically) avoid a tragedy is for the moment very underdeveloped. I find no evidence of a tragic imagination (in the Aristotelian sense) neither in Moscow, Beijing, Washington, nor other minor powers. Everyone insists on starting self-destructive wars, or threatens to do so. The US should have learned something from its fiasco invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but did it? Both the Russians remain obsessed with Ukraine and the Chinese with Taiwan. Each insists in its own way on the worst strategic mistakes.

If, as I fear, each and every one of these powers that we may well call empires (even if they deny it and may not seem so) are seriously weakened by these errors, the world will enter into an infernal circle of confusion, disorder, and violence between and within many countries.[4] Such is the kind of tragedy they should avoid: in another words, chaos — for the benefit of the planet. And there is no better antidote than to rethink tragedy as the Greeks did 25 centuries ago.

Eighty years ago, Ortega y Gasset urged his listeners in the city of La Plata to work seriously for a better country. His expression became famous: “Argentines, to things!”. Today it applies to all countries at a time of political crisis. It means to say to us citizens of the world “stop being confronted with trifles and get to work for the common good”.In “things” we could read “what is important”, what does not change according to who governs or decides (judges, legislators, presidents, etc.), the unchangeable, what should be lasting, what makes life and not death. In short, to find a common ground on which we all agree so that we can found a national and global system from there. A species, dear reader, of manifest “anti-rift”.

[1] Jose Ortega y Gasset, Meditacion del Pueblo Joven, Madrid: Espasacalpe, 1964.

[2] The paradigmatic case of tragic national destiny is the State of Israel, which I will not analyze here. Of recent settlement and spectacular development, and without a written Constitution, but with military strength, economic innovation, and preying democracy; however, the State of Israel fails to overcome the condition of battle-hardened camp in foreign territory.

[3] Another contemporary Greek thinker and economist, Yanis Varoufakis, proposes that such chorus becomes protagonist:

[4] Robert Kaplan’s reflections are worth reading

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